If you read a lot of thrillers, you keep meeting the same people again and again.
Sometimes it seems every hero’s either a hardbitten detective with money and alcohol issues, or a burly ex-Marine with PTSD, or an aging spy being unfairly set up. Audiences know what they like and it’s hard to break new tropes with traditional publishing – one reason I turned the whole ex-cop thing on its head with Gabe Rayner, who’s never got closer to the police academy than the Northern Line.
But there are thousands of thrillers out there with traditional characters and new writers often get fooled into thinking that’s all that you can write about. So how can a new author find some open market space to sell in?
It’s easy. As long as you think yourself out of the cop/soldier/spy straitjacket.
Here’s some food-for-thought for authors with knowledge of the Middle East: write in Arabic. The Muslim world is less literate than the West, and in more pious states there are problems selling any book save the Koran. But with a dearth of entertainment options out there, I feel a thriller series with a Muslim hero would succeed massively: the character conflict comes not from booze or drugs, but from observance of Ramadan and filial piety, having to bury murder victims within 24 hours etc. There are no Muslim action heroes save perhaps Mohammed himself, and it’s about time he had company.
Alternatively, you could combine the biggest niches of all – romance and thriller – by creating a female hero who’s a nymphomaniac. Most female protagonists, even the hard-bitten ones, have “standard” female problems like husbands and children to appeal to female readers. A female lead who treats men the same way Bond treats women might cross over, finding a huge audience among men too.
Minorities are a great group to pick over. How about a lone wolf who’s great at B&E and bare-knuckle fighting thanks to his Roma upbringing, and who can’t stay in one place because of ancestral wanderlust … but is ostracised from his own community because he’s gay? Plenty of character, plenty of conflict.
Or how about a geek/gamer hero? Someone physically unprepossessing, but with such developed smarts of game strategy he can look ahead enough moves to keep his meat out of the grinder? There’s a running gag among city planners that you can learn all you need to know about municipal management from a few days with Sim City; maybe the same applies to armchair sports or ancient battles.
And the best thing about creating these new kinds of action hero is that the inspiration is all around. Just look at everyone who isn’t like you.